An autumn adventure awaits you on every side of the compass in Glacier National Park
Story by Clare Menzel | Photography by Greg Lindstrom
What do you make of this tilted earth? Come September on the 48th parallel, dropping temperatures arrive to puncture the haze of languid dog days. Daytime shortens, squishing sunshine into fewer hours. Morning brings a layer of frost, fine as talcum powder, to the highest peaks, as thin skins of ice creep over shallow waters in the lowest valleys. But this shouldn’t be your cue to curl up and wait for winter. Notice that the swarms of summer sightseers in Glacier National Park are disappearing. This is your chance. Land a spot at the bucket-list campsite that’s been booked solid since June. Gain free access to the park on September 30, National Public Lands Day. Listen to the quiet. Encounter more wildlife. We have trip ideas for whichever side of the compass calls. It doesn’t matter if you go north, south, east, or west. Just go. And make sure to thank the axial tilt for this second season of splendor, even more dynamic than the previous.
North Fork Flathead RiverThe impressive and rugged Livingston Range dominates Glacier National Park’s northwestern corridor. Starting at Heavens Peak and running almost to the border, this 36-mile stretch of Precambrian rock demands a long approach for a hiker starting in the Flathead Valley. Access beautiful Bowman Lake or quiet Kintla Lake on dusty roads from the Polebridge Ranger Station. From the foot of Bowman, jagged Numa Ridge rises toward the north, and the striking 9,891-foot Rainbow Peak steals the show to the south. Ten-thousand-foot Kintla isn’t visible from the foot of Kintla Lake, which slopes around an unnamed peak before revealing partial views of Kintla and her near-twin, Kinnerly.
For a full-day, out-and-back hike, scenic trails run along the northern shores of Bowman and Kintla. You can expect to see a few faces here on summer days, so take advantage of the season to enjoy the tread in relative solitude. This heavily wooded region is thick with larch trees that pop so vibrantly that even those familiar with the area will have their breath taken away all over again.
Both lakes serve as a gateway to the remote north-central area. Early season snowfall may prevent crossings over Brown and Boulder Passes — but those who stay closer to home base won’t miss out. Visit Polebridge, a northern outpost of civilization with a legendary bakery, for a taste of small-town Montana.
While frontcountry camping locations at Bowman and Kintla Lake filled up as early as 10 a.m. midweek this summer, fewer campers venture to the North Fork starting in late August. Summer operations ended on September 10, and primitive camping is open here until October 31. Primitive status means there is no water available, and campers are advised to bring their own; the fee is $10 per night. Don’t turn in too early, or post a night sentry — aurora borealis is known to put on a show during the fall months.
DESTINATION Turn onto Bowman Lake Road and drive until you reach the campground, about 30 miles from West Glacier and six from Polebridge. The lake, which is seven miles in length, is the third largest in the park, after Lake McDonald and St. Mary Lake. Many paddlers can reach the head of the lake and return on a day trip. Don’t forget to have your hand-powered boat inspected at the Apgar Backcountry Permit Center, just inside the West Glacier entrance gate. Before plying your paddle in these protected waters, you’ll need a permit certifying that your watercraft is free of invasive zebra and quagga mussels. Fall inspection hours and details about winter water closures will be posted online in September on the park’s boating information page.
But waterways aren’t the only means to explore the North Fork. Travel by foot to two alpine lakes via the Quartz Lake Loop, a 13-mile trip that departs from the foot of the Bowman Lake. This path is relatively low in elevation, meaning it may stay accessible even after some high peaks are painted white. To break the trip into two even days, or to spend more time with the view of Vulture Peak, reserve a Quartz Lake backcountry site.
Middle Fork Flathead RiverThe southern region of the park is one of the Crown of the Continent’s least crowded areas — at any time of year. Even though U.S. Highway 2 runs just below the boundary, and stunning drainages stretch northeast from the road, the mighty Middle Fork bars access during warmer months. Snowmelt in the early summer makes for thrilling whitewater rafting and dangerous river crossings. Wet river crossings are only recommended past August, and may be attempted safely come fall, but be sure to discuses your plan with a ranger if you’re considering this option. If you’re determined to explore this worthwhile area — you’ll certainly be rewarded with solitude — you can access Park Creek via the Walton Ranger station, and the South Boundary trail travels along the river from the park’s West Entrance as far as Coal Creek.
There are a number of pleasurable day hikes from the Essex area that do not involve fording a river. For views of Mount Saint Nicholas, a dramatic and distinctive horn, try the Scalplock Lookout Trail, a steeply climbing 9.7-mile out-and-back trek to the lookout’s 6,919-foot namesake. Farther east, a 10.2-mile round trip to the low Firebrand Pass departs north of Marias Pass. You can’t beat the panoramic views of Glacier from this excellent vantage in its southeast corner. Be prepared to turn back from both hikes if early-season snow obscures the trail near the top.
While many of the park’s Red Bus routes wrap up service in early September, the eight-hour Big Sky Circle Tour runs to the end of the month. Get onboard at the Glacier Park Lodge, and the vintage bus will take you on a huge loop around the park’s southern boundary to West Glacier and back to East Glacier through the heart of the park via Going-to-the-Sun Road. As you travel through elevation bands, you’ll see different species of foliage celebrating fall with their own uniquely colorful displays.
DESTINATION Wander through colorful aspen groves east of the Continental Divide in Two Medicine, an often-overlooked region of the park. A popular trail from Two Medicine is to Scenic Point, but the centerpiece trail of this region is the loop between Pitamakan and Dawson Passes. This strenuous 18-mile circuit is not for the faint of heart, but it will take you on a tour of the region’s hits, including 360-degree views of Rising Wolf Mountain. Look for the curious Pumpelly Pillar above No Name Lake, and notice Mount Phillips, an island in a sea of connected peaks. Go clockwise to kick off with a steep climb to Dawson Pass and gradual ups and downs for the rest of the day; head in reverse toward the views all day long. With both passes sitting above 7,000 feet, this hike is fairly high in elevation, so confirm snow conditions and the weather before beginning this epic trip in late fall. At the end of the long day on trail, you’ll likely want to lay your head to rest at the Two Medicine Campground, which begins operating in primitive status on September 25. During high summer, this campground often fills by as early as 11 a.m., but, historically, it rarely meets capacity in September and beyond.
Many GlacierThree prominent valleys meet in the north-central Lewis Range to create an area famous for its easily accessible milky glacial lakes. Head up the Josephine Lake Valley to reach one of the park’s most popular destinations, Grinnell Glacier. The next drainage to the north, the Wilbur Creek Valley, contains Iceberg Lake, another highly visited spot. Visit via a 9.4-mile round-trip trail. These lakes will always attract large numbers of sightseers, but with cooler fall temperatures, you can bet on encountering fewer parties. The Continental Divide travels up Many Glacier’s third valley, Swiftcurrent, and the hike over Swiftcurrent Pass is stunning — but best saved for early fall, before snow flurries.
Swan Mountain Outfitters, Montana’s largest horseback outfitter, maintains a corral in Many Glacier that continues to operate into fall. You may check online for availability of specific dates, but the season’s latest-running trips are to Cracker and Poia Lake. Keeping in classic Many Glacier style, both pools are worth the trip. Cracker Lake is known for its unbelievable azure-blue color, and Poia is serene and quiet, thanks to its removed location on the eastern edge of the park.
The historic Many Glacier Hotel on Swiftcurrent Lake, as well as the Swiftcurrent Motor Inn & Cabins, both shut their doors to guests mid-September, but Many Glacier is also home to a large campground. It operates in primitive condition from September 25 to October 31, with a $10 nightly fee and no potable water available. It’s one of the most coveted campgrounds in the park, and would fill up as early as 7:30 a.m. midweek this summer. Still popular in fall, it has met capacity as early as 10:30 a.m. in September in years past, so you’ll still want to arrive early to score a spot. To the south, the St. Mary Campground remains open, and without fees, past November 1.
DESTINATION The park’s Ptarmigan Tunnel is an alpine engineering marvel. You’ll be surprised to arrive at the mouth of the 250-foot-long tunnel — wild lands reach out to all sides of the compass, and one hardly expects to see this mark of mankind cutting into a mountain wall at 7,200 feet. Built in 1930, the tunnel helps hikers access the Belly River Valley from Many Glacier without embarking on a difficult, technical climb over the ridge extending beyond the Ptarmigan Wall. Weather permitting, the tunnel usually remains open until late September. To visit, begin at the Iceberg Lake trailhead, 2,300 feet and 5.3 miles below. En route, you’ll pass up-close views of Mount Grinnell, Swiftcurrent Mountain, Mount Wilbur, Crowfeet Mountain, and the Ptarmigan Wall. When you emerge from the tunnel, you’ll inevitably be drawn to continue along the red hillside to Elizabeth Lake, some 2,000 feet below. Press on — there are designated campsites at the head or foot of the lake — and you’ll be rewarded with views of the massive Mount Merritt, one of six peaks in the park towering about 10,000 feet. The remote Belly River area, relatively low in elevation, continues to be an excellent place for hiking well into autumn.
Many GlacierGoing-to-the-Sun-Road is a jaw-dropper any time of year, but you don’t want to miss this quintessential byway come fall. Start low in the McDonald Valley, drive up to Logan Pass, over the Continental Divide, and then descend into the St. Mary Valley. Observe changing fall colors at different elevations, and note how the darker, moodier fall days heighten the drama of sheer mountain faces along the route.
It’s no secret that it’s tough to find a parking spot at the congested Logan Pass lot, even as early as 9 a.m., during the heat of summer. Fall is the ticket to a crowd-light experience of the pass — a must-see. Through September, the park’s shuttle service will operate on a modified schedule from Apgar to Logan.
The Visitor’s Center at the pass closes mid-September, but many informative displays remain year-round. Hike to Hidden Lake, a highlight among highlights in the Crown of the Continent. The boardwalk is usually packed during summer months, and fall may be the best time to visit. Some wildflowers in the meadows here even stick around as the leaves change and fall to the ground.
The Sun Road’s open status is always dependent on weather, and visitors planning to visit in fall, when conditions can change quickly, should check the road status online. On October 9, the portion of road between the four-way stop at Apgar and Logan Pass will be closed to all travel, including vehicles and bicycles, due to the final phase of a major road rehabilitation project.
The Red Bus Western Alpine Tour, a three- to four-hour trip, is the park’s latest-running tour, with service concluding on October 8. It’s a classic route, beginning in the cedar and hemlock groves of the Lake McDonald Valley. Enjoy the ride up to Logan Pass and back, keeping a lookout for wildlife preparing for winter.
DESTINATION McDonald Creek, a rushing creek fed by peaks in the southern Livingston Range, empties into the park’s largest lake. You’ll catch views of it traveling alongside Going-to-the-Sun Road, until the road bends up toward the Loop. The creek runs low by September, but there are still a few excellent swimming holes along the way if you’re willing to get chilly, and fall is the safest time of year to wade in the creek’s cold waters. To explore Lake McDonald, get onboard with the Glacier Park Boat Company, a family-owned operation. Though their other locations across Glacier wind down in early or mid-September, operations continue on Lake McDonald to the end of the month. Take an hour-long tour on the DeSmet, the company’s flagship vessel. This 57-foot boat was built to carry passengers on Lake McDonald, and has served her purpose well for nearly 90 years. The nearby Apgar Campground, the park’s largest with 194 sites, is open nearly year-round. It operates in primitive condition from October 10 to October 31, and in winter condition until March. While the campground filled up as early as 9:30 a.m. this summer, in years past, it has rarely reached maximum occupancy starting in September.